I've been reading a book that my husband found at a second hand store, called The Cry for Myth, by the 20th century existential psychologist, Rollo May. There are a number of chapters dedicated to the cancerous growth of narcissism through the 20th century, and reading it feels like a good wake up call. It also sort of "nails" exactly where we are right now in history, in terms of a dying age, whose sacred calves are so tied up in what has been seen as "universal truth", that the death of this age feels like the end of the world, for many. May's chapter on The Great Gatsby and the flashing green light across the water, as Gatsby displays "the tragedy of success", also points to a now aged ideal of the head honcho, the king pin, with the yacht, who every woman wishes they were with, and every man wishes they could be. In this light, we are living in almost absurdly mythic times, where we have the aged, disintegrated king, the tyrant, sitting on the throne, and all the main subjects are those who lived their glory days in the era that sold the lie that every man gets to be a millionaire. We see it acutely in the current honcho, who mirrors to all of us in the West, our appetite for the pursuit of acquisition, although not necessarily valuing the prize once it has been won.
Thomas Merton had a pretty major grasp on the increasing individualism, pathology and acute narcissism that was building in the West, in the 1960's. He was interesting because he had a tender and listening ear for those who were crying for change, and he didn't see the path to wellness as "don't listen to these new fangled beatniks, everything must remain as it is". In fact, in a talk that he gives to the novices he takes a slight turn from the subject (he was giving a talk on Sufism), and suggests that "the war in Vietnam is America working out its own neuroses". He had a keen eye for how slavery had morphed into new forms in America, and literal slavery had moved into the developing world, and how wealthier, more educated nations could be guilty of disassociating their own pathologies because they had the privilege of placing them elsewhere as a sort of diversion.
It is no secret that culturally at this point in time, discourse has devolved to the most acute volley of "two wrongs make a right" that we may have ever historically seen. We have taken this pathological diversion to a whole other level, to the point where we are able to create impasses that are so acute, they have the appearance of being impossible to transform out of. And I wonder sometimes, when we sit in our disintegrated state, if we want to move from the impasse. The impasse itself has become like a nice comfy couch to curl up on.
It is tempting to allow for these diversions to reign. In our personal lives, it is tempting to allow ourselves to be sort of internally entertained by our disappointment in others. Or by their disappointment in us. And politically, it is tempting to get high on our own "what aboutism" that keeps us firmly unchanged and certain.
The song for today's Sunday Song & Rumination is The General Dance. To me, this passage is one of Thomas Merton's most cleansing passages. Taken from Merton's book New Seeds of Contemplation, The General Dance was recorded for the album I did with James Finley, called Point Vierge: Thomas Merton's Journey in Song.
Pairing this song with the Rollo May book that I'm reading makes sense, because Merton's passage artfully takes us out of our navel-gazing tendencies, and paints the Big Picture, without sacrificing justice or compassion. It speaks to our pathologies very clearly, without narrowing everything down to a cynical, sadistic outcome. Instead, it widens out, and brings hope... that we don't have to have it all figured out, that we make mistakes and so do others. And even suggests that "our persistence in understanding the meaning of it all" will involve us in "sadness, absurdity and despair".
It is a passage for seekers to seek in a way that welcomes the incarnation of the journey itself.
It is a passage for us die hard codependents to come face to face with letting go.
It is a passage for snapping us out of whatever paralyzing loop we're trapped in.
I love the line "because no despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance, which is always there. Indeed we are in the midst of it, and it is in the midst of us, for it beats in our very blood, whether we want it to or not."
In another song on Point Vierge, (called Strange Islands), Merton says "it was a lucky wind that blew away his halo with his cares, it was a lucky sea that drowned his reputation." This is AA. This is release. This is what James Finley says is, "imagining we're trying to jump over a very high bar, and it's like, athletically, we can't do it... and just as we're exhausted by it, Love steps out and places the bar on the ground. And approaching the bar, bewildered by the simplicity of the task, we trip over it, and fall into God's arms."
When I dance to this song, I can hear our own cry for myth. I can hear the story being told, which is: us... joining in, with all that is and ever was or will be, dancing, out of ex nihilo!
God, in your "suffering with" mercy. Help us not to fear Love's bar being placed on the ground. Help us not to place the bar so high for others, that they have no choice but to disappoint. May your love flow freely inside of us, that it might be embodied, and that it might liberate our Internal Rhythm... that we may "throw our awful solemnity to the wind and join in the general dance".
This week's Sunday Song and Rumination is my "hymn to compost", May Life Live On.
Franciscan and evolutionary academic, Ilia Delio recently wrote a couple of brilliant pieces in response to the sexual abuse cases coming out again in the Catholic church. Her angle is first naming the horror and tragedy and then, that we need to look at this in terms of the dominant worldview that has shaped clerical hierarchy in the first place.
And through that lens, lest the Catholics be the only ones getting the bad rap, as someone whose formative years were predominantly shaped by the protestant world view, I can see how what shaped clerical hierarchy transferred very cleverly into marriage, post reformation. This protestant version of the beast perhaps doesn't prey on altar boys, but it simply morphed in many cases (obviously not all, but neither are priests predators across the board), into entitlement toward one's wife, prostitute, secretary, keyboard playing worship leader, or all of the above.
In one of Ilia's pieces entitled DEATH IN THE CHURCH: IS NEW LIFE AHEAD?, she says:
"Science has greatly shifted our understanding of nature including human nature, biological nature, and physical nature so that every aspect of theological doctrine must be reevaluated in light of evolution and modern physics. Every seminary curriculum should include Big Bang cosmology, evolution, quantum physics, neuroscience, depth psychology, and systems thinking. Incorporating science into seminary education will not preclude abusers but over time the formation of new structural systems that are more consonant with nature as cooperative interdependent systems might allow for greater transparency, interdependency, and accountability."
If we back up even further out of this clerical/male priest hierarchy and the corresponding male pastor hierarchy, we can see so easily then, why we treat all of life the way we do. We separated matter from spirit philosophically and theologically, and we separated science from spirit, and when we do that, there is no end to objectification. The great poet Wendell Berry said in his brilliant essay Christianity and the Survival of Creation, that "the culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world, and the uselessness of Christianity to any effort to correct that destruction, are now established cliches of the conservation movement."
As I look at the way humans and the planet are expressing themselves at this time, I believe earth elders like Joanna Macy when she says (and has been saying for so many years), that we are living in the time of the Great Turning (some have called it the ecological revolution). Joanna observes that first there was the agricultural revolution, then there was the industrial revolution... and now we are at the point where we must turn from an "industrial growth" model toward a "sustaining society" model. But we can't do that if we are still in this "upward" hierarchy that Ilia Delio talks about, vs the new "forward" model she is recommending.
Joanna Macy says of the industrial revolution, "from the systems point of view, it is a doomed political economy, it is a doomed system on runaway, because it is seeking to maximize one part of it, and once you do that with any system, everything goes out of balance."
As a person who has somehow found new life in following Jesus, (through my own very proud, but not very happy theological roof being utterly blown off), I am interested in how whole systems function with/by a certain level of cacophony that allows for more life to thrive, vs the monoculture model we still find ourselves in. The church especially, whether Catholic or Protestant, really has some growing to do ecologically, neurologically, gastronomically, philosophically, spiritually, artistically, culturally and yes... theologically. Because of the "closed system" that Ilia Delio speaks about, theology has become the belligerent, entitled uncle at the Christmas dinner, unable to dialogue unless it is on Uncle Theology's terms. Without the open system, that accepts that change is a part of the picture, we will continue to be a part of the entire problem... including (maybe even especially...) the problem of climate change.
Carl Jung's beautiful way of describing this kind of good growth, the "forward" (generative, future-centric) growth, vs a cancerous, "upward", "bigger is better" (who cares about tomorrow's children) growth, really catches what needs to happen: "We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life's morning, for what was great in the morning will be little in the evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie."
Spiritual growth (moving into the afternoon and evening of one's spiritual journey) for many Christians, is seen as heresy. What if it is simply outgrowing the paradigm of what worked in the morning?
The song I am sharing today is about becoming a part of evolution through a full embodiment of the Christ, and so to become fully alive in this body. No longer severed from my body, no longer ashamed of my body, but from heart to finger and toe tips, I am incarnate with possibility. And when that happens, something else very extraordinary follows: you realize that Christ really does "play in ten thousand places" and it isn't just in the poem. And ironically, through this embodiment, you're able to make peace with death, accepting that one day this very incarnate body will decompose, and go back to the earth. And of course, even when the incarnation isn't conscious, because life is like that, the longing is incarnate, and it brings new life.
Wendell Berry, in his 2013 interview with Bill Moyer said: "The world is maintained every day by the same force that created it. It's an article of my faith and belief... that all creatures live by breathing God's breath and participating in God's spirit. And this means that the whole thing is holy... the whole shootin' match. There are no sacred and unsacred places, there are only sacred and desecrated places."
All of my favourite, most wise, trustworthy teachers say to hope. So even though cynicism is the easiest and greatest temptation, let us hope creatively. Let us hope compassionately. That guy I claim to follow said very drastic things like "leave all things and follow me".
What would happen if we dared to do what we don't dare to do?
May life live on. Amen.
Alana Levandoski is a song and chant writer and recording artist, in the Christian tradition, who lives with her family on an aspiring permaculture farm on the Canadian prairies.